Action to Build a Faction: An Interview with Lauren Harper and Liam Kerr

Author image
Daniel Stid
May 17, 2023

In this Lab Note, I share a recent conversation I had with Lauren Harper and Liam Kerr, Co-Founders of the Welcome Party and Welcome PAC. They launched these organizations to advocate and create a “big tent” Democratic Party, one more capable of winning and sustaining overwhelming majorities. Lauren (who, full disclosure, serves on Lyceum Labs’ Advisory Board) and Liam are innovative political entrepreneurs and action-oriented factional leaders of the sort that I am convinced we need more of for our party system and democracy to flourish. Hence my interest in learning from and lifting up their work so that others can too.

Note we are sharing the perspective of Lauren, Liam, and their organizations not to endorse their mission and goals, but rather as part of our ongoing program of nonpartisan research, analysis, and education on ways to improve U.S. democracy. We will be sharing similar conversations with other factional leaders in other parties in future Lab Notes. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Daniel: What led you to form the Welcome Party and Welcome PAC?

Lauren: We started the Welcome Party to do outreach to more voters. We launched it before the presidential primary in 2020 to reach out to independents in two early states, New Hampshire, where Liam is based nearby in Boston, and South Carolina, where I was then based. It’s not a priority of Democratic primary campaigns to reach out to non-base voters. And we know that when primaries come around, the voters who turn out are less representative of the swing voters or unaffiliated voters in the middle.

Our basic message to these voters is that we are a big tent Democratic Party, we want your voice heard in places like South Carolina and New Hampshire, and we want you to vote in the primary. This was the initial work of the Welcome Party–to get more people involved in primary elections in order to get a better Democratic candidate on the ballot, one who was more representative of the electorate, in the November elections.

We then founded Welcome PAC because we believe that there are more competitive House districts than traditional party entities, reporters, pundits, and rating agencies like to admit. We are diligent about finding those districts where President Trump underperformed, which indicates to us that it is a conservative leaning district, but not necessarily super Trumpy. We can see the independents, swing voters and moderate Republicans in those districts. We started Welcome PAC to do more outreach in those districts, to place bigger and better bets so we can pick up more House districts for Democrats.

Liam: The ideological and self-interested far left has built a real community, a sense of “we,” a sense of purpose and aligned strategy for their work. As a Democrat with more pragmatic perspectives on policy, I had no real home in the party, no place to go and work with like-minded people. I was thinking a lot about that: How do we build a home for us in our party? So we founded the Welcome Party.

We and many other Democrats felt something was off in 2019. Part of it was looking at the data showing that independent voters were turned off by what was happening in the Democratic primary campaign. Part of it was a feeling that we were starting to lose our way, to lose touch with the voters we would need to win. Individual actors within the Democratic Party ecosystem can respond rationally to the incentives they face, but when you aggregate all those rational actions, you get a wildly inefficient party ecosystem.

So we asked a simple question: shouldn’t we try to get independent voters to turn out–people who don’t vote in Democratic primaries but are allowed to in these states–when that strengthens our process and our party? It’s not really anybody’s job, but we can do it!

Lauren always says, you need action to build the faction! By taking action, we were demonstrating a “show, don’t tell” energy among centrist Democrats. By reaching out and bringing more voters in, we were structuring the fight and debate within the Democratic Party in a healthy and accurate way. We want to go reach out and bring more people in. They [the far left] want purity. We’re trying to practice democracy. And that’s our faction’s purpose.

The Welcome PAC was a natural extension of that. When you aggregate the incentives of rational actors, you realize there are actually 15 or 20 House seats that are just to the right of where it would make sense for any one individual or organization in the Democratic Party to play. But there’s massive value to the Party in playing there, in doing things differently

Daniel: What would wild success for your work look like over the next three to five years? How would the world be different because of its efforts?

Liam: The first big difference is that we will be part of a large and growing network that has a sense of identity and community–and that we have efficacious ways of acting together. The action to build the faction will be effective. We will be winning, we will be defending democracy, but we will be doing it as part of a community, so there’ll actually be a psychological benefit. There is safety and a shared sense of community in numbers.

A second one will be public leadership of a faction. We want a squad for the center, of elected officials. We want to be able to point and say, that is what the Democratic Party is. That is the Big Tent faction of common sense Democrats. Those are the majority makers. And they’re not only winning for a Democratic majority. They’re defending democracy, and they’re governing effectively.

The third big difference is at a more granular action level. We will have far more seats that are competitive federally and then at all levels of government. We will see more and more of the early investments, the factional investments, the candidates who can speak to those voters who right now don’t have a choice, paying off. Take the California 41 election we were involved in during the last cycle. It had been more than a decade since those voters had any meaningful choice, but we gave them one. We’ll be part of an infrastructure that’s been built not just to have more democracy, but to have more actual competition and fighting over a growing middle.

Lauren: I want to reemphasize Liam’s point about creating a home for the millions of voters across the country who aren’t incredibly partisan one way or the other. They don’t feel like they fit in with either national party or what they see in Congress. We want to create a bigger tent for the Democratic Party, to remind people that there are other Democrats who are moderate or conservative in their values. Some people may now feel like, “Oh, I can’t be a Democrat anymore, because they’re going to shun me for not being this or that.” Or moderate Republicans and independent voters who are frustrated with the MAGA/Trump brand and they just don’t want to fit in with that brand. They also need a space where they can at least feel welcomed.

Daniel: OK, so this is not meant to be a snarky question: What you’re describing seems like common sense for a party wanting to succeed. Why aren’t mainstream Democratic Party organizations at the local, state, and national level already doing what you guys are trying to make happen? After all, you and they share a goal of Democrats winning more elections.

Lauren: A lot of organizations, individuals, and parties in the states or at the local and county level say they’re doing it, and they may believe that they’re doing it. But taken together they are not actually practicing democracy. They are not welcoming more people in and being empathetic to their views. Common sense is not as common as we would like it to be.

Typically the people who work in our party’s organizations and its affiliates are to the left of the general electorate. We’ve done lots of surveys and polling, and we read other people’s surveys and polling. A lot of Democrats identify as mainstream, particularly minority Democrats–black, Hispanic, and Asian voters. Yet the parties assume if you’re black voter, you must be super liberal, for example. The people at these organizations don’t really grasp the mainstream viewpoints many Democratic voters have. Or if they do, they are not acting like it.

Liam: We subscribe to Steve Teles’s factional theory of party politics. It will take sustained coordinated investments over a long period of time to strengthen the muscles of the Democratic Party in the centrist faction. We hear your question a lot: “Why don’t the Democrats do this?” It is important to understand the trend of non-party organizations taking on more and more power from the traditional political party organizations, as you’ve noted in your own work. When you say “The Democrats,” you are describing an ecosystem of hundreds of groups. Some of them are aligned interest groups, like unions, and issue advocacy groups. Some of them are state and local party organizations. But there is no board. There is no CEO. There is no five year strategic plan. There often aren’t even organizations that are large enough to move the marketplace on their own. Then you have the incentives of the staff at these organizations. As Lauren mentioned, the staff are well to the left of the median voter that needs to be won over. So you aggregate the incentives facing all of these groups and individuals, and you get something very inefficient from a majority-building perspective.

I should also note that we believe empathy for the established party institutions is important. We have a sector that’s rapidly changing in a short period of time–lots of outside actors and money pouring into a marketplace that cannot respond very quickly or organically to these inflows.

Daniel: Let’s talk about rural areas. We can divide and conquer to cover the parts of the country each of you are focused on. I’m presuming for Lauren that is the Southeast and Texas and for Liam the Northeast and the Upper Midwest. What does the Democratic Party need to do to appeal to voters in marginal but winnable seats in these parts of the country?

Lauren: The common sense thing. Democrats need to get back on Team Normal! There are so many examples of where we need to get back to normal conversations and terminology. From using terminology like “birthing people,” to not understanding challenges of first-generation Americans or even first-generation college students. When the average person isn’t able to understand the reasoning behind why people are doing things, it makes them feel like, “well, I don’t make a point of sharing my pronouns, so I must not fit in with [the Democrats].”

Again, it sounds simple, but when you think about the ways that we talk to voters, about voters, with voters, it’s less the party of working Americans and more the party of people who have Ivy League degrees and much more wealth than the average American. Not to say your privilege is a problem. But when you don’t identify as a normal voter and don’t understand normal voter struggles and values, then you tend to stray from those normal voters in what you say and how you say it.

We come again to the staffing problem. So many of the staffers we come across in the Democratic ecosystem are white, wealthy, and more educated people. That’s not the average American. So when Republicans are winning rural areas, it’s because they know how to talk to people there. They use normal and personable rhetoric. People can relate to it. Let’s recalibrate the perspective, messaging and perception of the Democratic Party back to normal again.

Liam: I’d just add that there’s a case to be made that rural areas are some of the more volatile in terms of more potential for split ticket voting and swings in the electorate. We think that polarization is real but overrated and there’s been an under-investment in depolarizing. Rural areas are also great examples of places where there’s been under investment in an economic sense and in a political sense. And where we think heterodox and differentiated leaders can capture some of the volatility in those electorates.

Daniel: Let’s talk about the intra-party factional fight you are engaged in. I am presuming that Progressive Democrats are at best uneasy if not greatly frustrated by and opposed to your agenda. How do you engage them? What do you say to them about what you’re trying to do?

Liam: The first thing is we learn from them. As entrepreneurs, we view learning from our counterparts on the far left to be incredibly important. The far left ecosystem that emerged after the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign is really a remarkable group of entrepreneurs. They were very disruptive. They took very smart risks. They identified ways to leverage small pieces of the electorate to have outsized impact, like taking 17,000 New Yorkers’ votes and turning that into AOC as the face of the Democratic Party. These are incredible bets by impressive entrepreneurs. So the first thing we want to do is, learn from them and apply that to the center.

Second, how we go about structuring the tension with the far left is really important. We do not want to kick them out of the Democratic Party. But we want them to acknowledge that they want to kick people out of the Democratic Party. When they make the case that our bringing in a majority of Americans will dilute their power, that means one of two things. Either one, they need a very small Democratic Party that is out of power to feel empowered themselves, and hold disproportionate power over an enfeebled party. That may be true–and if so is problematic! The second alternative would be they do not respect the will of the voters. They do not believe in practicing democracy and they would prefer to bend the system to unpopular opinions.

That still doesn’t mean we want to kick them out of the party. We would also distinguish between those who hold left views and the very small group of progressive activists who are prosecuting their cases in the deep blue areas in a way that’s damaging the overall party.

Lauren: We appreciate the diversity in thought, perspective, background, and ideology that the Democratic Party holds, even though AOC has said that Democrats are too big of a tent! We don’t want to kick people out just because they don’t align perfectly with us. They have incredible ads, the best websites, and such talent for us to learn from. We want to work with them to create the democracy we want to pursue together. It is not about left and right. It is about how do we uphold the democracy that we have come to appreciate and live in and enjoy?

Daniel: Are there particular politicians whom you see exemplifying this big tent sensibility?

Lauren: We have a project that we’ve called “Win the Middle.” We highlight candidates and elected members who are effectively winning the middle in 2020 and 2022. We have found that the elected officials and the candidates who, again, create a big tent, allow for diversity and nuance and perspective, and really meet voters where they are–not just geographically but also ideologically and from a pragmatic perspective–when you do that, you win a lot of voters and you win elections.

We also had some really close races last cycle with Will Rollins in California and Adam Frisch in Colorado. They were meeting voters where they were and getting split ticket voters to vote for them. They came up just short. We know for example that a lot of people voted for Will Rollins who did not vote for Gavin Newsom–they were Independents and moderate Republican voters he was able to win over.

We have many great members of Congress espousing a pragmatic approach to democratic policymaking, and we’ve been grateful to work with congressional members like representatives Ritchie Torres, Greg Landsman, Abigail Spanberger, Jeff Jackson, Dean Phillips, Jared Golden, Shontel Brown, and Jim Clyburn from my home state of South Carolina.

All of these leaders are awesome at what they do and how they represent the Democratic brand. It is not one person’s job to represent the brand. It’s everyone’s job to represent the brand. They have just been doing it so spectacularly. They have won races that maybe they shouldn’t have won, had they not been able to do these things.

Daniel: Liam, anything you would add to that?

Liam: The overwhelming majority frame is a compelling thought experiment. If Democrats had a permanent governing majority, there would have to be a significant and coherent bloc of centrist voices. So right now, tactically, this means things like Mary Peltola in Alaska hiring former Republican staffers and extending a political olive branch that way. On policy, we see a new generation of people coming in who are building their own brands. That will have to happen in different flavors in different parts of the party. For example, MGP [Marie Gluesenkemp Perez] in Washington has a clear, authentic outsider approach, focusing on policy specifics such as, people are stealing car parts, and that’s a huge problem. Also, large corporations aren’t letting us fix those car parts cost effectively, that’s another problem. My representative in the Boston suburbs, Jake Auchincloss, has been very clear and substantive on a policy front. From a deep blue district in the Bronx, Ritchie Torres is maintaining a grounding in the progressive movement while having a clear moral and policy vision that is sharply differentiated from the most troubling aspects of it.

Daniel: Thank you – any final comments before we wrap up?

Lauren: One of the things that we emphasize is that we’re not blaming voters, and we’re not blaming people in leadership positions. We are trying to shift the narrative of what the Democratic brand currently is because it has been tarnished over the past few cycles. What does it mean to be a Democratic candidate in 2023? Can we sustain and grow a Democratic Party that is, once again, representative of the broader array of backgrounds and ideologies in the party, in a way that gets people excited about being able to be a part of a coalition like ours.

Liam: It’s a lot of fun to “party better”! We only get a chance to place bets every two years in this sector. We need to place a lot more bets. My hope for the philanthropic and democracy reform communities is that they would come to appreciate our focus on placing political bets that put into practice the world we hope will come about. We believe politics will have to change along with the rules changing in the way democracy reformers seek, and that politics may have to change first for the rules to change.

We have already learned a ton. When we started, we had no FTEs. We just decided we were going to go knock on a bunch of doors, send a bunch of texts, and do a bunch of calls up in New Hampshire and down in South Carolina. It turned out there was a great reception and we discovered other things were important. There’s this organic discovery process unfolding now that’s yielding more and more places to fix our democracy that are often shockingly low hanging fruit. And yes, we should design a new orchard and engineer better apple trees, but there’s also some low hanging fruit we can grab, and we need to!

Author image
Daniel Stid
Daniel Stid is the Executive Director of Lyceum Labs.